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On Flight Back to Rome, Francis and Journalists Survey a “World at War.”

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Papal press conference touches on range of topics, including torture, Iraq, new encyclical.

From the possibility of the unification of the Koreas to the idea of “just war," from the situation of persecuted minorities in Iraq to the Pope’s upcoming journey to Albania, on the flight back from Korea to Rome, Pope Francis answered questions put to him by journalists travelling with him aboard the papal plane.

In what has become a traditional impromptu press conference aboard the papal plane, journalists spent more than an hour questioning the Pope about his recent visit to Korea for the 6th Asian Youth Day, about issues raised during the journey, his take on the ongoing violence against Christians and other minorities in Iraq, and about plans for future foreign trips.

The first question, put to him by a Korean journalist, concerned his closeness to family victims of the Sewol ferry disaster, in which more than 300 people lost their lives. There is much anger in Korea regarding the government’s response to that tragedy, and Pope Francis was asked whether he was worried his attitude could be politically exploited.

“When you find yourself face-to-face with pain and sorrow, you must do what your heart tells you to do,” the Pope said. He pointed out that he is a priest and he feels close to those who suffer. His closeness, he explained, brings consolation, not solutions; and he recalled that when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was there to bring comfort to the many victims of two terrible disasters (in a discotheque fire, which killed 193 young people, and in a train accident, which killed 120). In Korea, when someone pointed out he continued to wear the yellow ribbon of solidarity for the victims of the ferry disaster. he answered: “You cannot be neutral before the pain of your brothers and sisters.”   

Answering questions regarding the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities by fundamentalists of the Islamic State, the Pope said that “it is legitimate to halt the unjust aggressor.” And he underlined the word “halt” pointing out that does not mean to “bomb.” He said the methods used to halt the aggressor are to be evaluated.

The Pope also pointed out that in these cases we must not forget “how many times with the excuse of halting the unjust aggressor…have powerful nations taken possession of peoples and waged a war of conquest.” A single nation, he said, cannot judge how to stop an unjust aggressor, and he pointed to the United Nations as the right venue to discuss the issue.

Pope Francis also pointed out that persecuted Christians are close to his heart but he underlined the fact that there are also other minorities suffering persecution, and they all have the same rights.

Regarding his availability to travel to Kurdistan to be with the fleeing refugees, Pope Francis said he is ready to do so if it is deemed a good thing to do. At the moment, however, he pointed to the various initiatives undertaken by the Vatican, such as sending Cardinal Fernando Filoni, writing to the UN Secretary General, and writing a personal communiqué that was sent to all the nunciatures and governments in the area.      

When asked about progress in dialogue with China, Pope Francis said he happened to be in the cockpit when the plane was about to enter Chinese airspace. He said he “prayed intensely for that noble and wise people.” He said his thoughts turned to the Jesuits and to Father Matteo Ricci and expressed his love for the Chinese people. He also referred to the letter written by Pope Benedict XVI regarding relations with China and said this letter is still very up-to-date and it is good idea to read it again. “The Holy See," he said, "is always open to be in touch, because it has true esteem for the Chinese people.”

Speaking about his upcoming visit to Albania, he pointed out that he is not going there, as some have surmised, because it is in his style to start with “the periphery.” He explained that he is going to Albania for two important reasons: first, because it has a government of national unity, which gathers Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics, thanks to an Inter-Religious Council that works and gives balance. And this, he said, is good: “The presence of the Pope is to tell all peoples that it is possible to work together.”

The second reason he pointed to refers to the history of Albania, which was unique among the communist nations in that its Constitution foresaw practical atheism. “If you went to Mass, it was anti-constitutional,” he said. And he recalled that 1,820 churches were destroyed in Albania.